Genre: Historical Fiction
Length: 368 pages
First Published: 2023
The granddaughter of one of the only female doctors in China, Yunxian is taught all about women’s illnesses, alongside her best friend Meiling, a midwife-in-training. When Yunxian becomes a wife in an arranged marriage, Yunxian is forbidden from speaking to Meiling or helping the household women. Determined to break away from tradition, Yunxian goes on to treat women from every level of society in this novel based on a true story from the Ming Dynasty.
A story about women supporting women, Lady Tan’s Circle of Women excellent showcased the struggles women of all classes of society faced in ancient China. An enveloping read with deep themes, this fictional tale of a real doctor favors descriptive storytelling over emotional attachments. Thus, this slower story is perfect for readers who like to be fully immersed in historical fiction.
According to Confucius, “an educated woman is a worthless woman,” but Tan Yunxian—born into an elite family, yet haunted by death, separations, and loneliness—is being raised by her grandparents to be of use. Her grandmother is one of only a handful of female doctors in China, and she teaches Yunxian the pillars of Chinese medicine, the Four Examinations—looking, listening, touching, and asking—something a man can never do with a female patient.
From a young age, Yunxian learns about women’s illnesses, many of which relate to childbearing, alongside a young midwife-in-training, Meiling. The two girls find fast friendship and a mutual purpose—despite the prohibition that a doctor should never touch blood while a midwife comes in frequent contact with it—and they vow to be forever friends, sharing in each other’s joys and struggles. No mud, no lotus, they tell themselves: from adversity beauty can bloom.
But when Yunxian is sent into an arranged marriage, her mother-in-law forbids her from seeing Meiling and from helping the women and girls in the household. Yunxian is to act like a proper wife—embroider bound-foot slippers, pluck instruments, recite poetry, give birth to sons, and stay forever within the walls of the family compound, the Garden of Fragrant Delights.
How might a woman like Yunxian break free of these traditions, go on to treat women and girls from every level of society, and lead a life of such importance that many of her remedies are still used five centuries later? How might the power of friendship support or complicate these efforts? Lady Tan’s Circle of Women is a captivating story of women helping other women. It is also a triumphant reimagining of the life of a woman who was remarkable in the Ming dynasty and would be considered remarkable today.
About Lisa See
Lisa See is the bestselling author with works including The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane, Shanghai Girls, China Dolls, Lady Tan’s Circle of Women, and The Island of Sea Women. Ms. See currently lives in Los Angeles. Visit the author’s website →